Path of the Horseman by Amy Braun


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Amy Braun

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Of the Four Horsemen, Pestilence is the ultimate catalyst.

Sure, it’s probably the others that will get you. Famine starves you and War makes you insane before Death finally tracks you down. But Pestilence is the reason things go straight to Hell.

Don’t get me wrong– I was good at my job. Damn good. Too damn good, actually. I worked hard on my super-virus. The Big Boss Upstairs said wipe them out, so I did just that.

I was the spark that burned down the world.

Shame I didn’t read the fine print. Logan said I was being over-enthusiastic, but who listens to their older brother when they’re having the time of their life? Doing what I was created to do?

Turns out that I should have. I really, really fucking should have.

Ending the world wasn’t a mistake. It was my job. But watching it all unfold, all the pain and blood and the endless screams, I hadn’t anticipated that.

Before the seal was opened and we were let out, Heaven had been updating us on the world beyond our stone prison. We knew all of Earth’s history. We didn’t know when we’d be released, only that we would be some day. So our handlers saw fit to feed us a never-ending documentary on Earth’s history. I watched the first grunting humans shamble out of their caves and see light for the first time. I watched the rise and fall of Rome. I saw the radical slaughters of Genghis Khan then watched Vlad the Impaler earn his reputation in Transylvania. I also saw artists change the world only to fall into depression and suicide. I witnessed great men climb up the ladder from nothing, only to be screwed over by packs of backstabbing bullies. I even know the truths about Area 51 and the JFK assassination. Not that I’m about to share.

Amazing inventions, colossal failures, and countless wars. We watched it behind the scenes. Watched the monkeys from beyond the glass. We were intrigued, Hell was amused, and Heaven was losing patience.

Finally, the monkeys threw too much shit on the windows. They sparked a third World War, one that the Big Boss Upstairs knew would obliterate the world.

So He sent us instead. We were much more effective. We were much more eager.

But I never thought about what it would be like to watch my disease spread like wildfire in a paper forest. I hadn’t imagined seeing my closest brother parch the earth until it was a husked shell of itself. I wasn’t prepared when my oldest siblings tore through the world like a knife plunging into fresh skin, the hot pain of War chased by the cool conviction of Death.

Our handlers hadn’t prepared half as much as they thought they did. We weren’t the only things let out that day. Turned out demons were tricky sons of bitches with as much patience as any angel.

Standing on the hilltop, watching my brothers annihilate one half of the land while the demons picked up the scraps made me sicker than the plague I let out. We were told we’d be saving humanity. The Tribulation would lead to the Second Coming. A clean slate to restart the world.

What a fucking lie.

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Chapter 1

Six Months After Tribulation

I couldn’t believe how long it took for them to see me. When they weren’t excited, they were the speed of a rolling pencil and about as smart, but I was a walking buffet. I had to shoulder into some of the idiots to get them to notice me.

Though when they did, the plan started getting dangerous. There wasn’t a lot a Plagued could do to me, but I could still get hurt. Getting crushed by a bunch of decaying corpses was not on my list of death wishes.

Their shambling picked up as I jogged through the crowd of Plagued. Raspy moans and guttural growls followed my back. Good to know I got their attention.

I needed them to surround me. Yeah, I could have taken them out one at a time, but where’s the fun in that? Besides, it had been so long since I used my powers that I was beginning to feel human.

Definitely not as fun as being the Real Me.

So I ran to the center of the town, making as much noise as I could. Knocked over a garbage bin, threw a rock into a window, shouted for help, the things only moronic people did.

Not that there were any stupid people alive anymore, thanks to my brothers and me. No Good Samaritans, either.

I slowed down and stood at a four way stop, looking at every intersection and counting all of the Plagued. Five, ten, fifteen, twenty... Twenty-three? That’s it? Damn. Last week’s haul was better.

But it wasn’t the Plagued I was really after. Oh no. I’m a guy who tries for the bigger game. Yes, I turned humans into flesh-eating zombies. There, I confess. But the real monsters? The ones who were fast, strong, and literally bloodthirsty? I didn’t make those.

Scout’s honor.

I watched the Plagued shamble closer, keeping my eyes on the windows of the busted shops and the alleys. They could come out during the day, but they hated it.

Still, I was fresh meat. Something I knew they wanted. As far as they knew, I was a nice juicy human. The rarest of rare for their palates.

Come on out, you bastards. Take a bite of me, and choke.

I swear the Soulless were less patient than their brain-dead brethren. They eased out of the dark like pools of oil dripping into shadows. Stealthy and languid, they were the jaguars hiding in the jungle. There were four of them. Less than I accounted for. I would have gone back to recheck my numbers, but the converging circle of Plagued was tightening. The smell nearly made me gag. Think sleeping next to a rotting corpse in a dumpster is bad? Try standing in the middle of over twenty decaying corpses whose body odor alone will have your stomach rethinking your lunch.

The Soulless weaved faster through the crowd of undead. I could see them being shoved aside. The Soulless wanted first bites, the selfish jerks. There was enough of me to go around.

I kept my hands loose at my sides, relaxing my mind and pulling up the ancient power inside my body. It grew like the maw of a yawning lion, wide, roaring, and showing all its teeth.

I shouldn’t have been using it, but… it felt fucking good.

The power shivered under my skin as the Soulless gave up on subtlety. The Plagued were feet away, and they wanted early dibs. The closest Plagued were just stretching out their withering fingers when the Soulless burst through the lines. They hissed like feral cats, bloodshot eyes narrowed in hunger, black tipped claws pointing out like shards of glass from their fingertips, dried blood caked around their crocodile toothed mouths.

The Soulless thought they were the top dogs. Highest on the food chain. Untouchable.

But they were nothing compared to me.

Their claws barely scratched my arm as I let all that pent up power go. A living disease exploded out of my body in a wave of black smoke and ash. I controlled the smoke, watching its tendrils snake into the mouths of the Soulless. They skidded to a stop and screeched as I turned the smoke into a corrosive bacteria that devoured their insides. The hungry bacteria tainted their pale blue veins, turning them into black cracks on their dirty, alabaster skin. The four Soulless gave a collective scream before collapsing onto the ground. Their pale complexions turned grey, and I knew my job was done.

But did I stop there? Of course not. I was surrounded by walking corpses and too lazy to fight my way out.

I pushed the hazy disease toward the Plagued. I narrowed my smoke, condensing parts of the vapor to the size of hornets. My locusts. It had been so long since I used them.

And they were hungry.

Holding onto my smoke, I let the locusts fly at the Plagued. They latched onto the walking dead instantly, through their already decaying flesh. Dead things don’t feel pain, so they didn’t scream or howl. They just twitched and jerked, like they were dancing in a possessed rave while the smoke machine poisoned them.

Took another minute for the Plagued to collapse onto the ground next to their freshly dead Soulless pals. I pulled the locusts back, dissolving them into fumes that I pulled into my skin. By the time the disease was back in my body, I was light-headed and seeing stars. It had been a long time since I’d used the locusts, and I’d forgotten how draining they could be. I had a lot of power, but no idea how much longer it would last me.

Playing human was a bitch. Stupid Bosses should have told me that much.

I shook the dizziness off and breathed steadily, then looked at my work.

Twenty-three Plagued lying in chunky heaps of bone and clotted blood, four black veined and grey skinned Soulless staring with sightless eyes.

Not a bad haul, actually.


After effectively vaporizing the overeager vampires and their brain-dead cousins, there was nothing left for me to do in Boulder City. This had been my sector since that little apocalyptic party my brother and I hosted six months ago, and I hadn’t been to one since. Not even a Sunday dinner. Not that there was a lot to eat since Simon did his job.

Some days I wondered if the Bosses Upstairs knew what would happen to us after we cleansed the earthly slate. Actually, I’m pretty sure they did. We were just tools to them. The ultimate stain remover, no money back guarantee required. Except what do you with the bottle when those stains are gone? You toss it. The stain remover did its job, and you don’t need it anymore.

So we were stuck down here with the leftover dead and might-as-well-be-dead, wandering back and forth because we had no direction. When we finally picked our spots, we stayed in them. It wasn’t like anything could really hurt us.

Too bad that like the stain remover, we had an expiry date. Nobody was coming from on high to take us back to the clouds and throw us a thank you party. They couldn’t even be bothered to seal us back up again. I wouldn’t really want to be locked in the pit with my sociopathic siblings again, but a change of scenery would be nice. I was sick of the sandstorms, the sunburns, and the smell of old death.

In the end, that was what made me leave my little Boulder. I needed some kind of adventure. Anything to kill the time while looking for something to actually kill.

I trudged through the now completely empty city, kicking up dust and stepping over debris. With no street crews alive to maintain the roads, the whole of downtown looked like the desert was swallowing it up. The sand was ankle high at some points. I walked past the bloodstains and emaciated corpses I’d spent the last six months talking to. I didn’t have much for company these days since we’d split up. Some days I wished I hadn’t let Bacillus go. He’d been my one loyal friend, and I locked him away. Couldn’t even think about the guy without thinking about what he’d helped me enthusiastically do.

The roads were littered with cars. Most of them were crammed into the middle of the streets, like metal sardines in a brick casing. I didn’t have a lot to pick from in terms of style, but I did find a black Jeep Cherokee near the corner of the four way stop. Three other cars had been smashed together, probably two sets of cars trying to speed to safety. Of course they didn’t pay attention, thinking the Plagued were more dangerous than their fellow commuters.

Irony, thy name is humanity.

The sand softened the crunch of glass under my military boots. I looked inside the Cherokee to make sure it hadn’t been turned into a Dead Hobo Hyatt. Good news was it was empty. Bad news was I couldn’t see anything remotely close to survival supplies. I figured food would be out (damn you, Simon), but anything else would have been nice.

I’m invincible when I’m using my powers, but my skin suit is not impervious. This is something many Soulless have discovered, but haven’t been able to tell their friends. I’m not sure what will kill me. Simon will probably die of starvation, Kade will burn himself out, and Logan will be the last man on earth before he commits suicide.

Turns out we weren’t the only suckers for that bitch called Irony.

I tugged on the car door. It didn’t budge. So I made my way through the maze of crushed cars, found a fist sized rock, and picked it up. I turned and walked back to the car, then smashed the rock into the driver side window. I was stronger than your average mammal, so I took it out in one hit. I wasn’t worried about the noise, since everyone on the planet was dead.

I reached into the broken window and pulled up the lock. There wasn’t a car alarm, thank God. I hated breaking into cars that have thirty different alarm tones. I brushed the glass off the seat and slipped inside, tossing my rucksack into the seat next to me. My black cargo pants were thick, but no one wants to drive around with shards of window sticking into their ass. Next step was getting this box started. I reached into my front pocket and took out a Swiss army knife. Not as badass as the machete strapped to my back or the two KA-BAR knives hooked on my utility belt, but damn it if the little blade wasn’t efficient. A couple little twists, and the steering column popped off.

Though I was reluctant to show them any kind of gratitude, sometimes I was grateful the Bosses Upstairs implanted me with universal knowledge. It made finding the wiring harness and connecting the ignition to the battery wires an easy task. I didn’t even electrocute myself. I sat back against the seat and revved the engine. It started in one sputtering burst. Hallelujah.

As I put my hands on the steering wheel, I caught a glimpse of myself in the rearview mirror. It had been a while since I’d seen myself, but the body I’d been dumped in didn’t look any different than it had when the chaos started six months ago.

I was around the age of twenty-five, as far as humans were concerned. I suppose this body was attractive, though its skin was a little too pale for my liking. My hair was a short, white-blond mess on my head, and my gold eyebrows had a constant pinched look to them. The paleness of my appearance was stark against my clothes. The black cargo pants, combat boots, weapon harness and utility belt, and dark green shirt. I looked like an albino that went to boot camp for his anger management issues.

The only thing that gave me away was my eyes. Instead of albino red, they were dark. I don’t mean deep brown or black, just dark. Kind of the way the night is dark, a color all its own because it’s seen differently by everyone. Depending on my mood, the dark could be a touch lighter, or on the path to abysmal. These days, it’s probably always abysmal. I really need to talk to Simon.

I backed up the Cherokee, shifted gears, then navigated my new ride to the Esso across the street. I had to zigzag through the mess of cars, but soon enough I got to the gas station.

My skills are in the “infectious” category, so keeping fuel potent was tricky. At least I had some to spare in Boulder. Too many people had turned into Plagued buffets before the pumps ran out. Good thing the Cherokee took diesel.

As I filled the SUV, I took my last long look at Boulder City’s downtown heart.

My implanted memories told me it had been nice once. Like a preppy homemaker version of Vegas. Now its paved roads were smothered with dull yellow sands. Street signs and billboards were covered in grime. Trashed and burned out vehicles had been dropped like unloved toys. Store windows were broken or half boarded up. Blood splatters painted the sidings. Skeletons with broken bones lay partly buried under layers of dust they would soon be part of.

Home sweet home.

Well, as close as I would get anyway. The pit had been home since time began, but it was a cold place with nothing to do but learn about the world above us. I’d been about ready to lose my mind, when the seal was broken, and we were free...

Light seeped through the pinnacles over our heads, dousing us in its warm glow. I breathed deeply, savoring the taste of fresh air for the first time. It was cool and soft, a gentle lover’s caress to my lungs.

I stood up, and welcomed it.

The four circles of light swelled and grew, until they conjoined into one glorious, gold sphere. I wanted to close my eyes and bask in it, but I feared that doing so would make the light disappear and cast me back into darkness.

My brothers converged to my side, each one of them trembling with anticipation. We continued to stare as a single, beautiful voice descended through the light and melted into our ears.

It is time.

The sharp smell of petrol fumes took me out of the memory, but didn’t change my mood. It was safe to say I was more pissed off now, given how hard I shoved the gas pump back into its holder.

I yanked open the driver side door and threw myself in, angrily restarting the SUV.

The Cherokee finally coughed to life, my saving grace to get the hell out of this dead city.After six months here, I knew the streets well. I was able to find a route and squeeze through the literally lifeless traffic and drive out to the highway. Or the sandway, as I called it these days.

I hoped the long, quiet drive would calm me down, but it only reminded me that I was the reason for the silence.

I was asked to create a virus that would wipe out every living soul on the planet. With the amount of knowledge force fed into my brain, deciding on the Plague was almost too easy. Humans have feared the undead since the dawn of time. And why wouldn’t they? What could be worse than shooting at an enemy that feels no pain, no exertion, that travels in packs, and that multiples faster than jackrabbits on ecstasy and speed? I thought it would be funny to watch the humans, who had spent years thinking they were prepared to handle an undead apocalypse thanks to media, paranoia, and Hollywood, see just how unprepared they really were.

For the first few days, it was amusing. The government tried to cover it up and get everyone to stock up on survival kits and stay in their homes. They would handle the situation, and it would all be over soon. That’s when Simon started doing his part. He snuck into grocery stores with my help and turned the food inedible. Even dried goods became scarce. He went out into the wilderness and starved the animals and evaporated all the water in the lakes. Simon turned forests into nothing but dehydrated trees and sand.

The humans began to lose their minds. Lack of food was making them insane. They had to get outside and find food, salvation, anything. Then it was Kade’s turn.

He’d already been running around on his own, setting everything and everyone he could see on fire, starting mutinies in the armies, and aggravating packs of Plagued so they would find their way into heavily populated areas. It was too easy for him to turn man against man. He was right in the middle of it all, laughing and smiling and covered in blood.

Logan didn’t do as much as people might think he did. Sure, he did his job and killed everyone he touched, but there was always a heavy sadness around him when he did it. The Plagued didn’t have souls after my virus killed them, but since they were walking corpses, he focused on those who were still living and breathing. He would appear out of nowhere, cloaked from human eyes, and watch people die until it was time for him to make their deaths permanent. Logan was the most powerful of us, able to extend his skills across the world so he wouldn’t skip anyone. Logan hated his job, but he was really fucking good at it.

It took two months for the human population to be cut in half. I figured the angels would be showing up, ready to establish a new game plan for us. Soon enough, there would be no humans left, and something would have to replace them for the Second Coming.

We never heard a fucking thing.

I waited and watched, staring at the sky and thinking someone would tell me why this was happening. It was becoming too much. All those memories of humans had showed me more than wars and destruction. Humans could be selfish and stupid, yes, but their history hadn’t been a complete disaster. They laughed and loved and fought for nobility. Firefighters risked their lives to save strangers in burning buildings. Soldiers took bullets for one another. People with barely enough income to feed themselves volunteered to help others who lived on the streets. Big brothers put Band-Aids on the skinned knees of their little sisters.

At five months, I realized I had made a huge mistake. Heaven wasn’t coming to earth. My virus had killed off all but ten percent of the population. Anything Simon hadn’t atrophied was burned down by Kade. Logan was everywhere.

When it was over, all that was left standing was us and the dead. That was when I knew we were going to have to live with the mess we made.


The road I took to Henderson was devoid of Plagued and Soulless, so I thought I would be safe. Never assume.

I’d been so damn busy moping over what I’d done with my brothers that I never saw the road-spikes on the middle of the sandway until it was too late for me to stop.

They flipped up and I reacted like an idiot. Instead of stopping, I swerved.

With nothing but vacant cars and tipped big rigs and RV’s strewn on the sandway, speed was irrelevant. It wasn’t like there were any cops around to give me a scolding and a ticket. I had been doing close to one-fifty against the grit, so when I snapped the wheel to the left, I took the whole SUV with me. The back tires still skidded against the sharp edges of the road-spikes, popping them with a sound that rivaled a shotgun blast. The horizon pitched as the Cherokee flipped onto its side, bouncing once before rolling onto its ceiling. Before the tumble, the airbag exploded with a loud crack, smashing me in the face and nearly blinding me with the damn powder. There was sharp pain in my nose, and then the SUV rolled onto its side. I fell out of the seat and landed in the passenger seat in an awkward crunch with my rucksack digging into my back.

Next time I speed on the sandway, I’m wearing a seatbelt.

The problem with being in a human body is that I feel pain. Unless I’m using my powers, I’ll feel every cut of broken glass, every sharp twist in my neck, every bruise as I’m tossed inside a metal box like the world’s most hated rag doll. When the SUV finally stopped rolling, I was already blacking out.

Their voices woke me up. I could hear them shouting happily from outside the vehicle. They couldn’t have been more than thirty feet away.

I blinked my eyes open, feeling something hot and sticky sliding down my forehead. I quickly glanced at my body. It was bruised and scratched from the broken glass, but it was in one piece and there were no bones sticking out at the wrong angles.

I knew I had to get moving, but everything I saw was blurry and I felt sluggish. When I turned onto my front, it was more like an awkward belly flop. I lay down on the top of the car, feeling the shards of glass and rough carpet of the roof scraping my stomach. The front of the car had been crushed sometime in the roll, making it hard to see through the thin crack of the windshield.

But I saw enough. Four Soulless sauntering toward me, and someone else. Someone that wasn’t undead, but wasn’t human either. Which could only mean…


There wasn’t a lot that could kill me. But one of those things could.

I pushed myself up, barely even feeling the glass digging into my palms. I wasn’t a huge guy, but I wasn’t small, either. I couldn’t squeeze out of the side windows and there was no way I was getting out of the front. I twisted around and clambered to the end of the SUV. Their shouts were louder now.

I stumbled when I made it past the seats, landing on my ass in the trunk. The back window was cracked from the crash, so it spider-webbed when I kicked it.

Soon as the back window popped from its casing, I pushed it out. I shoved the glass until I could crawl underneath it onto the road. The glass scraping my back pretty much guaranteed my shirt would look like it went through a shredder.

Now freed from the Cherokee, I stood up and swayed on my feet. The pain in my head was an angry throb, and it only got worse when someone rushed my side and punched me in the head. I twisted with the hit, watching the world spin again. But I didn’t hit the ground. Instead, I ended up in the claws of a Soulless, who wasted no time in sinking his fangs into my throat.

I cursed as his teeth clamped onto my neck, tightening his grip until my skin broke and my blood poured into his mouth. It hurt like a motherfucker, but his teeth hadn’t punctured any vitals yet. I shoved his shoulders but he didn’t let go.

But the moment my blood touched his tongue, he got a heavy taste of suicide.

The Soulless jerked back, yanking his fangs out of my throat. I pressed my hand to my neck. The blood flow was sluggish, not enough to kill me. Still felt like I’d been stabbed in the neck with jagged rocks.

Meanwhile, the Soulless’ black clawed hands went to his throat, tearing at it as he tried to get the poison out of his system. He gagged and choked, his bloodshot eyes going wide as his jet-black pupils dilated. The prominent blue veins under his paper white skin began to turn black. He looked at his friends for help, but they were too stunned to do anything but stare.

I stood there and smiled, watching the monster turn the color of a slug. The Soulless took one more heavy gasp, then bent double and vomited up all of his internal fluids.

His chest bulged as his stomach heaved up a disgusting rainbow of slimy red, piss yellow, shit brown, and my personal inky poison. He didn’t stop to breathe, because he couldn’t. The body fluids splattered into a pool in front of him as his skin turned a solid grey. As soon as he was done puking his life out, he collapsed into the puddle of disease, deader than a doornail.

Killing the Soulless wasn’t easy, but I was a walking weapon.

I turned my head ever so slightly to the other three Soulless that were staring at their finally dead friend, horrified and confused about what had happened to him. When they heard me take the machete from its leather scabbard on my back and a combat knife from my belt, they looked at me. I was bleeding and struggling to keep myself upright, but that didn’t stop me from smiling.

“Still hungry, tics? I dare you to take another bite.”

The Soulless hesitated. The three of them, a middle aged man in blue jeans, a dark-skinned man in a grey suit, and a ‘roided up jock still wearing the jacket of his college football team, gawked at me like I was the tiger whose tail had been pulled one too many times.

Soulless weren’t mentally challenged like the walking Plagued out there. They still had a functioning brain. They could speak, understand, and feel physical pain. They were also extremely fast and had heightened senses. Definitely the more dangerous of the two, but not half as dangerous as the other monster lurking out there. I didn’t want to look away from the Soulless, but I needed to find him. He could actually kill me, whereas the Soulless would be hunting for my pain.

Some sort of switch must have flicked in their heads, because they charged me at the same time. Jock was the quickest, darting forward to throw a harsh punch. I moved at the last second, spinning around his side and planting a hard kick into his stomach. He doubled over at the perfect angle for my knife to slide into his throat. Cold, dead blood stuck to my hands as I yanked out the knife and shoved Jock away. He wasn’t dead-dead, but I’d come back to him.

Jeans was rushing my left, but I stopped him with a powerful kick to the chest. As he stumbled back, I swept out my right arm and slashed at Suit with the machete. He was a little bit quicker, skidding to a halt before the blade could cut his throat. I kept turning, stabbing the knife in my left hand into the side of his head, right into the sweet spot behind his ear. Suit jerked once then went still, his dead body simply reacting to the knife lodged in his brain. I twisted that knife, and watched his bloodshot eyes roll into the back of his head for the last time.

A huge impact slammed into my back, knocking me away from Suit and pushing me onto the sand covered road. It must have been Jeans who was pinning me, because I couldn’t smell sulfur, and Jock was only just beginning to recover. The stab wound I’d given him hadn’t damaged his brain or his spine, so he was capable or healing. And being severely pissed off.


I twisted and tried to throw Jeans off my back, but he wasn’t letting me go anywhere. He grabbed my shoulders with his claws and pushed my chest back into the dirt, careful not to dig his nails into my skin. He was worried my blood would poison him, too. The guy forgot that poison only worked when it was ingested, but points to him for being cautious.

When he’d tackled me, I’d lost my grip on the machete, and the knife was still in Suit’s head. I still had one knife on my belt, but I decided he deserved a flesh-eating disease. I reached back and touched Jeans’ skin where the cuffs of his pants had ridden up. His skin was freezing, but I kept my grip and let the disease slip through my fingers.

Jeans screamed, a terrible, hoarse, shriek that freaked even me out. He was up and off my back so fast I was sure he broke some kind of record.

While he was screaming, Jock was back in my face. He raised his foot and stomped down, aiming for my head. I was quicker. I pushed back and let his shoe pound the sand. I leaned back on my haunches, grabbed my second knife from my belt, and stabbed it into his shin. Jock howled, distracted by the pain. I pushed myself onto one knee, punching him hard in the ribs. I yanked the knife out, continuing to rise and take revenge.

I drove my knee into Jock’s kidney, then punched him hard in the cheek. His head pivoted to the right, his eyeball going directly into my waiting knife. I gave the blade a sharp twist, and killed the Soulless Jock.

Pulling my knife free, I spun around. Jeans was running all over the place, his claws tearing apart his flesh as the bacteria began infecting his skin. He was decaying, the skin that he hadn’t torn turning a sickly purple red before blackening. The man looked like a burn victim without the crispiness.

Jeans’ face was twisted in a horrible mask of pain, his screams utterly agonizing. I flinched, remembering those sounds. The terrible wails of women who’d lost their children to the Plague, husbands who were defenseless when their undead wives returned to devour them. Crying children with hollow bodies, weeping out of hunger and fear. Pain-filled cries for mercy before Kade brought down his hammer. A quick, short scream before Logan officially ended someone’s life.

I flipped my knife and hurled it into Jeans’s head. He twitched when the blade thunked home, then dropped like a bag of rocks, silence replacing his screams.

Behind me, hands clapped. I whirled around, balling my fists at my side and waiting for the next attack.

But the son of a bitch wasn’t going to attack me. He sat there, on the undercarriage of my flipped SUV, his long legs dangling over the side. He looked like the main character from the Western fantasy of a goth kid. He had a thick black duster draped over his shoulders, covering sleek black pants and a black dress shirt. He even wore black cowboy boots, leather gloves, and a wide-brimmed hat that hid his short black dreadlocks. His smile was blindingly white against his flawless, tanned skin.

Like me, though, it was his eyes that gave him away. The total blackness from lid to lid would have been creepy enough, but his irises were rings of fire. A mixture of red, orange and yellow that burned brighter the more excited he was. Right now, he was goddamn giddy.

“Avery,” he drawled. “Good to see ya. It’s been too long.”

I glared. “I dunno, Vance. I could’ve gone eternity without seeing your ugly mug again.”

“Ouch,” complained Vance. “That hurts me right here,” he tapped his chest slowly. “Well, it would if there was something behind this sweet outfit.”

I narrowed my eyes. “You know the old West died a few hundred years ago, right?”

“And you killed its substitute, didn’t you, Avery? Following orders, and all that? Gotta say, we loved your work. It made it so easy for us to get up top for some fun.”

Vance leaned forward enough for me to see the glow of his fiery irises.

“Ciaran would be here to thank you himself, but he’s been real busy lately. Soul harvesting is a lot of work.”

That stopped every thought in my head. I wish it hadn’t, because Vance started grinning like he’d won free tickets to a striptease at the Playboy mansion.

I clenched my fists, feeling my power seep though my skin. I wasn’t going to let Vance forget what I was or what I could do. He might be able to kill me, but I could kill him faster, and introduce him to a world of hurt before I did.

The only reason I wasn’t killing him now was because of what he’d said.

“How’s that going for him?” I asked, trying to get rid of my nerves. “Can’t imagine the Plagued are full of life and laughter.”

Vance’s laugh was hearty and rich. It made me want to punch a hole in his head.

“Oh, Avery, you’re so uncreative.” Vance stood up slowly, suddenly reminding me that he was over six feet tall and had the build of a linebacker. Flames danced in his eyes.

“What makes you think we’re going after the Plagued?”

He did it again, the bastard. Vance took all reasonable thought from my head. It gave him more than enough time to open his palm and fill it with swirling black and red flames.

I ducked the moment I saw the demonfire. I threw myself behind an overturned truck and let it absorb the blast. I could still feel the flames licking the side of the truck, hungry for me. The demonfire twisted, turning into three hooks the size of my arms. I shuffled away quickly, barely missing the hooks as they plunged into the truck, crunching the metal. I hated demonfire, almost as much as I hated the creatures that were able to bend it into any deadly weapon they wanted.

The heat died down and the hooks disappeared, chasing after Vance’s laughter.

“Don’t be scared, Avery,” he shouted. “I’m not gonna kill you today. Ciaran’s got big plans for you and your brothers. He just wants to see you squirm a little first. When you see what he has planned, you’ll be begging him to kill you.”

It had been a long time since I’d been this angry. Not since I realized Heaven had abandoned us and we were trapped on the hell we created until our human bodies finally keeled over.

I filled my hand with black smoke, ready, willing, and able to give Vance a nasty case of Smallpox. I turned around the side of the truck, drawing up my hand, ready to throw the disease–

At nothing. Vance was gone. The only evidence he’d been there at all was the haze of ash snowing onto the upended SUV, and the tightness in my stomach. That was just one reason why I fucking hated demons.

I dropped my hands, the smoke snuffing out into nothingness. I was almost glad the asshole wasn’t here to gloat. I didn’t want him to know he’d rattled me.

Plagued didn’t have souls. The Soulless traded theirs to become what they were. I was alive, but I didn’t think I had a soul. Which left only one option:

There were humans that survived the apocalypse. And they were in huge trouble.

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